It’s traffic vs. prayer in debate over shul plans

It’s traffic vs. prayer in debate over shul plans

Large crowd gathers as zoning board hears case for Chai Center

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

On April 12, the Chai Center appeared before the Millburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment regarding zoning variances requested to build a synagogue on their current site. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
On April 12, the Chai Center appeared before the Millburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment regarding zoning variances requested to build a synagogue on their current site. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Traffic was on the minds of many of the more than 150 people who gathered to debate the building of a synagogue in the heart of residential Short Hills.

During an April 12 zoning hearing at the Hartshorn School, opponents of the project wore small red stickers reading “STOP Major Zoning Exceptions.” In small groups, they murmured about crowded streets should the Chai Center win approval for its proposed expansion at 1 Jefferson Ave.

Supporters of the Chabad-affiliated synagogue, meanwhile, sported large “Let My People Pray” buttons. Some fretted that there was subtle discrimination behind the opposition, while others were disappointed that the plan was being dragged through the hearing process.

This week’s meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustment of Millburn Township ended almost two months of postponements and delays. The Chai Center hopes to tear down its current building at the site and erect a 16,350-square-foot center on the property and an adjoining lot owned by a center member.

The evening had its moments of excitement and even some high drama, as when one board member became ill and had to be attended by paramedics.

But it was an orderly procedure that lacked the raucousness of previous meetings involving the two sides, where tempers have flared.

In one tense moment pivoting on a legal technicality, however, the proceedings came to a screeching halt. Attorney John Lamb, representing opponents of the Chai Center’s plans, challenged the standing of Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky to have even submitted the application for zoning variances. By his own admission, Bogomilsky had only an oral agreement from Harry Gross, the member who owns the adjacent property, insufficient to meet the legal requirements.

In a scene out of a courtroom drama, a well-dressed man with silver hair stood up in the front section of the hall and announced, “I’m Harry Gross.”

As he approached the hearing area, however, the board informed him that they would not be calling any other witnesses. Instead, after some legal consultation, the board accepted a promise from Bogomilsky’s attorney, Larry Kron, that the issue would be rectified well in advance of the next hearing date, scheduled for June 21.

Too much traffic?

Current plans for the new structure require four zoning variances: exceeding the maximum height, providing less buffer between properties than the 50 feet required by the zoning laws, building a house of worship on a piece of property smaller than the required three acres (the property is 1.8 acres), and providing less parking than is required.

Bogomilsky, who also operates a Judaica store in the center of town and is developing an early childhood/day care center on Millburn Avenue in Springfield, was questioned at length about his plans for the new building. Lamb focused on the kinds of crowds the new structure might draw and sought to cast doubt on Bogomilsky’s assertions that the membership was not expected to grow, and that there would never be very large crowds gathering at the site for social events or worship.

When the meeting was adjourned after four hours, the questioning was only just beginning to touch on essential issues such as whether the Chai Center would stipulate that it would never use in-house catering (yes) and never use outside caterers for large events (no).

Reactions varied from frustration to hope. One man wearing a STOP sticker, who declined to provide his name, expressed frustration that it took over 90 minutes to get through the procedural issues at the beginning of the hearing. He said he plans to attend every session of the hearing. “Regarding the traffic part, they are violating the rules of the community, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said.

“I can’t pull out onto the street now because there’s so much traffic,” agreed Linda Jackson, who lives in the area. “And there are so many accidents on Old Short Hills Road and Parsonage Hill Road. They are not equipped to handle more. You can’t make a left onto Old Short Hills Road as it is. It’s dangerous. God bless everyone here — but please, we just can’t handle more traffic.”

Luba Shkarupa of Short Hills, a Chai Center supporter, said, “Some people are unhappy and they are trying to drag out this process indefinitely to exhaust our finances.”

Victor Esterlit of Short Hills, also a supporter, said, “We really need an Orthodox shul in this town since on many major holidays, we have to walk. There’s a big difference between an unmarked house that may or may not exist tomorrow and a proper establishment that we know will be there. I understand no one wants to live next door to a grocery store, or a church, or a shul, but this is not a Conservative or Reform synagogue. There are not too many Orthodox Jews in Short Hills and people don’t drive there.”

At the end of the hearing, Bogomilsky said only, “I think it’s going well. I think that their asking for stipulations is a good sign.” He was whisked away by a congregant, suggesting they daven Ma’ariv, the evening prayer.

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